Truckin' down to Deadland, Inc.

What a long, stupid trip it's gonna be.

Published January 9, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

I notice the picture first. I'm looking at the arts section, New York
Times, Jan. 6. The tiny attribution at the bottom of this garish
illustration says "Grateful Dead Productions." It's a pen-and-ink drawing,
colored in with orange and yellow, purple and blue. It shows a skeleton with
roses around its head in some sort of giant tube, like from a sci-fi movie,
what appears to be a rendition of a wall of video screens with a woman's face
peering out of it and a mob of people with their arms in the air. That last
part -- the arms in the air part -- immediately calls to mind two images: The
way the scary speaking-in-tongues people outstretched their hands to god at
the Pentecostal church I attended as a child and, of course, the Nazi "Heil Hitler" salute. The headline says, "Disneyland for
Deadheads: Ultimate Nostalgia Trip," with smaller type proclaiming "Rock
Group Lives in Memory and Master Plan."

Master Plan? As in Final Solution? The surviving members of the Grateful
Dead -- which has always struck me as probably the most culturally destructive cult American
popular music has produced -- are planning to build a museum to themselves in
San Francisco. Called "Terrapin Station" in honor of the band's 1977 album of
that name, the bunker -- I mean church, no, wait, I mean "entertainment and performance
complex" -- will supposedly include exhibits, a restaurant, an archive
and library, an auditorium called the "Jerry Garcia Theater," named for the band's late leader, and the all-important gift shop filled with Deadhead merch.
Plus, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, there will be
a space provided that would feature "percussion instruments for spontaneous
jam sessions or drum circles by museum visitors," to be called the
"Rhythm Devils Room." I think "Get a Life You Brainwashed Dummies" would be a
more poetic title. Because as anyone who lives in San Francisco can tell you,
nothing spoils a nice stroll through Golden Gate Park on a sunny
day like an eyseore gathering of the great unwashed blocking the footpath
with their bongs and bongos.

I asked my old San Francisco neighbor Gina Arnold, Salon contributor and music columnist for the
East Bay Express, what she thought of the new intrusion. "If it's
going to be in any town, it should be in my town," she says. "But I object
to it in any town. Still, I'm happy, because it will bring the Grateful Dead's
secret hypocrisy out in the open. There will never be any pretense of
respect once they've done it. Remember their whole thing about how they
were 'genuine musicians'? Nobody can pretend that anymore when this whole
thing happens."

I don't live in San Francisco anymore. I live in Chicago, where people are
crazy-cranked about guys who wear much better uniforms -- the Bulls. At least
Michael Jordan, unlike Bob Weir & Co., isn't pretending he's not milking his
fans for every cent they're worth. At least MJ's selling out on TV every two
seconds nice and public-like in honest-to-God car commercials, instead of
peddling skull-logoed, thousand-dollar watches in the name of peace and love.

Since I don't have to live in San Francisco anymore, since I won't have to
walk past this Tower of Tie Dye on any kind of frequent basis, I almost
enjoy imagining how this little "idea" will work. What if the Dead actually came
clean? What if, instead of painting smiley faces on their image, they'd
actually 'fess up to their true selves, accept their blame, as if on trial at
Nuremberg, and make a monument to their folly? What if, instead of doling
out the whole strange-trip-I-will-survive nonsense, they'd repent? What
if, every day, Bob Weir would stand out front like a greeter at Wal-Mart and
repeat, over and over, "We are responsible for inspiring two
generations of American citizens to listen to dreadful 'songs' that went on too long and
had no point, shell out millions of dollars for cheap, tie-dyed, teddy
bear-stamped crap and dress not just badly, but badly and
exactly alike! And, my fellow Americans, I'm standing here to tell you,
all I can do is apologize and throw up. I. Am. Soooooooooo. Sorry."

Or maybe Weir shouldn't stand there. Those Berkeley punk kids
beat up Jello Biafra for selling out, so there's no telling what could happen
to Weir. The complex's exhibits and concessions could tell the story of the
band's totalitarian spirit. For example, the cutesy parking lot planned for
the entrance that's supposed to recall how all the sheep, er, fans would
gather before shows could be entered through an arch inscribed "Faulheit
Macht Frei" (laziness will set you free). Souvenirs would be purchased at a
shop called "The Banality of Evil Bracelets 'n' Things" and the ubiquitous
Cherry Garcia ice cream would be sold by the pint at the "Let the Dead Bury the Dead Cafe."
There would be innovative carnival rides like the "Altamont-A-Whirl" or the
"Lifelong Drug Habit Ferris Wheel." Exhibits such as "You Followed Around a
Man Who Married Someone Named 'Mountain Girl' For 20 Years. What Were You
Thinking?" or "The Pothead Years: You'll Never Get Them Back, Ya Sucker"
would spark conversation and self-examination among former Deadheads.
I say build the thing. And let the healing begin.

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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